The Portland Trail Blazers will be attending the annual NBA Draft lottery festivities next month for the second straight year. Yesterday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings locked the Blazers out of the playoffs and in to a claim on one of June's top 14 draft picks.
This pushes the Blazers’ first-round obligation to the Chicago Bulls — created as part of the 2021 trade that yielded Larry Nance Jr. — out until at least 2024.
On May 16, the Blazers will send a representative to the east coast in the hopes that a particular ping pong ball is selected first. The order of the balls selected that night will dictate which teams pick when at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on June 23 for the NBA Draft.
But unlike most lottery teams, the Blazers find themselves in a relatively unique position. While they have been one of the worst teams in the league this season, the Blazers still have Damian Lillard who can immediately contribute to winning.
Because of Lillard’s ability and upcoming 33rd birthday, this team doesn't have time or patience afforded to most rookies...the type of leeway given to teams like the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, who are all playing the long game.
This creates a tricky situation for General Manager Joe Cronin, who is very much on the clock to deliver the contending team that he’s been talking about since taking the front office role.
Cronin has laid out the broad strokes of his plan on countless occasions, most recently at his post trade deadline press conference.
“We’re borderline anxious to push all of our chips in. We cannot wait for that moment to happen, it just hasn’t come up yet. It’s my job to be the voice of reason, to be very diligent to not make a big mistake, to not get the wrong guy, to not overpay, to not give up on somebody that could eventually become a really good player. I’ve got to be really smart about this because it’s trying to thread a really thin needle here. We don’t have room for error, we need to get this right. We wanna maximize Damian’s time.
“I know it’s hard when I come out, like, ‘Oh, well, we’re looking forward to this summer,’ or ‘have faith we can get something done.’ It feels a little empty like it’s false hope or unrealistic promises, but hopefully our track record has shown that we’re willing to be really aggressive.”
“Certain things come into play whether it’s, we got a first and potential now five seconds. Those are good currency in the marketplace and definitely help enhance a package.”
“We’re definitely in position with a better asset pool than we started with and for me that’s really important.”
Last week, I wrote about the Blazers lottery odds. Today we talk about what they might do once they have said pick.
Where will the Blazers pick?
If the Blazers finish with the league’s fifth-worst record, where they currently sit, the odds dictate that they will most likely pick seventh overall. There would be a 26.7% chance of that happening. The second most likely pick is sixth, which comes in at 19.6 percent, followed by third at 10.6 percent and then picks one, two and four at 10.5 percent.
Incidentally, if Portland finishes with the league’s sixth-worst record their most likely pick will also be at seven with 29.8 percent, the second most likely pick is eighth, which comes in at 20.5 percent. This is followed by third at 9.4 percent, the fourth at 9.6 percent, second at 9.2 percent and first at 9.0 percent.
Given the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards, still appear interested in making the Eastern Conference Play-In, Portland , the fifth-worst record looks pretty likely.
That’s the assumption we’ll make for the purposes of this piece.
Which picks get traded?
Nobody can say for sure what Cronin and the Blazers are thinking. But to me if the Blazers land any pick that’s not number one, the player chosen with that pick will not line up for Portland in October.
However, if the Blazers nab the first pick — for the first time since 2007 (probably still too soon), the equation changes.
Why? Because of a young 7’5 Frenchman named Victor Wembanyama. You may have heard of him. For those who haven’t, enjoy. Try not to drool.
There is a caveat, though.
Assuming, the Blazers luck into the number one pick, there’s probably still one phone call Cronin has to make before he selects Wembanyama.
Not sure he’s on speed dial, but Milwaukee Bucks executive Jon Horst has to be called and asked a very simple question.
“Hey John, you probably saw we got the number one pick. If there’s any chance you’re willing to part with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor is yours.”
Sure, salary would have to be worked out (Jusuf Nurkic etc. etc.), but I’d be prepared to give up on everything that Wembanyama could be, for a chance at a 28-year-old, two-time MVP, NBA Champion, freak of nature — I could go on.
The guy who appears to be a friend of Damian Lillard and who would be the most complementary player the seven-time All Star could possible be paired with in his prime.
It’s probably wishful thinking though, it’s unlikely the Bucks are ready to re-build just yet. But it’s totally worth making the call.
Why trade all non-number-one picks?
I’m not a college or G-League basketball expert. I’ve had a brief look at Brandon Miller, Jarace Walker, Scoot Henderson and the Thompson boys. I’m sure they’re great, but these young men are not helping Damian Lillard right now.
They are, however, extremely valuable to teams with a less urgent need to capitalize on their respective star’s diminishing window to contend. With Henderson, in particular, touted as a franchise-type guard, the haul likely retrieved will no doubt bring back a game-changing player for the Blazers.
I’m not speculating on prospective trade partners purely for the fact that the NBA Playoffs may shake free a disgruntled star who’s team has disappointed, as a front office realizes its ceiling isn’t high enough.
While the Blazers will not be featured in May, it would be prudent for all Portland watchers to keep an eye on teams under-performing or not meeting expectations over the next few months.
Why do the Blazers keep the first pick?
Well, because Victor is different. He just is. At 19, he’s probably not winning the 2023-24 league MVP. But he’s contributing to winning basketball really, really quickly.
And when Lillard hangs up his Adidas shoes a few years from now, Wembanyama will surely be hitting his prime. Hopefully, he’ll exceed the potential everyone is projecting: winning MVP’s, making All Star teams and leading the Blazers to titles.
For those naysayers, yes there’s a chance he ends up another Kristaps Porzingis. But based on athleticism, IQ and skillset, I believe that Wembanyama’s floor is the lanky Latvian’s ceiling.
The concept of the Blazers even being in the running for Wembanyama seemed like a fantasy a few months ago, but with the stretch run playing out so disappointingly, things have changed.
The Blazers now have a chance to yield a pick that can either get them young player that could change the face of the NBA over the next decade or be traded for a difference-making veteran.
Let’s just hope Lady Luck shines on the Moda Center next month so the Blazers faithful can grab the French phenom and hold onto him for dear life.